Andrew Kasper photo
Bonsai curator Arthur Joura sees the collection as a complement to the Arboretum’s mission. Top: “River of Dreams,” a tray landscape planting.
Spring arrives by the smallest of measures in the North Carolina Arborteum’s bonsai garden. Sprouting leaves and blooming flowers, the miniature trees that, like their much larger species, lay dormant throughout winter, awaken in the warmer air of longer days. This resurgence of life within the bonsai—and within mountain residents looking to shake loose winter cobwebs—make the season perfect for marveling at these magnificent pieces of horticultural art.
Situated just south of Asheville, off the Blue Ridge Parkway and along the French Broad River, the North Carolina Arboretum is home to one of the country’s most impressive bonsai collections. With more than 100 bonsai trees on display, visitors can spend the better half of an afternoon appreciating the ancient Japanese art form that has taken root in the Western North Carolina landscape.
Unlike many famous bonsai exhibits that tend to lean on the field’s Asian ancestry, Asheville’s bonsai collection has been sculpted and trimmed—just like the trees themselves—into something more Southeast than far East.
“Overall that’s part of the Arboretum’s mission, to help interpret and promote southern Appalachian culture and flora, so bonsai has to be part of that,” said Arthur Joura, bonsai curator at the arboretum. “We don’t want it to be this separate curiosity on the side.”
Joura intentionally uses plants found in in Appalachian residents’ backyards or along their favorite hiking trails. Trees like American Beech, Eastern Hemlock and Virginia Spyria make their way into his pots where they are bound and manicured into living sculptures of bark and mesophyll.
The Arboretum’s collection also eschews landscape ornaments such as oriental pagodas and rock gardens, instead recreating bonsai renditions of well known landmarks including Mount Mitchell, the highest point in North Carolina and the eastern United States; Roan Mountain, famous for its rhododendron blooms; and Graveyard Fields, a high-altitude meadow along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Like peering at an ant hill, the closer one looks at the shrunken landscapes, the more one is pulled in, closer and closer, by each intricate detail. And each detail is a testament to the painstaking and labor-intensive task of shaping a normal plant—engineered by years of evolution to grow up, down and out at all costs—into a well-behaved display piece. No small feat, harnessing a plant’s instinct to grow is akin to asking a classroom full of school children ready for recess to hold still for a portrait painting, indefinitely.
Which is why, although spring is an ideal time for those looking to appreciate the beauty of bonsai, nothing says “busy” like spring for a bonsai curator. With the frenzy of seasonal growth, Joura constantly is playing catch-up, attempting to keep numerous bonsai in shape, as shoots haphazardly crop up and branches veer from their plotted course, but Joura wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Spring is the best time of year, and for somebody who grows bonsai it’s the same way,” he said. “All of a sudden, here they are coming back to life, and it really has significant meaning to you.”
For the most part, however, bonsai is a patient art. Plodding towards perfection season after season, artists make use of pruning, coils of wire to guide branches, and pay meticulous attention to the amount of nutrients and water a plant receives. Bonsai is about striking a balance between letting the plant grow like the plant was made to grow, and maintaining the bonsai aesthetic. Joura has projects in the making that he began 10 years ago and he says might not be display worthy for another 10 years.
Some famous bonsai trees have been crafted for centuries—one tree in Japan is said to be around 500 years old—though Joura asserts the age of the bonsai trees is not important. The focus should be on the awe they evoke from their passing admirers. And for that test, there is only one way to administer it.
“You could read a million words about bonsai, written by somebody who knows everything about them, not until you go and see a good one, you really don’t know anything about what it’s about,” Joura said.